Deepam 2009 – Day of the Big Chariots


Saturday, 28 November, 2009, was the day that the big chariots were pulled through Tiruvannamalai as a part of the Deepam Karthigai festival. This is the biggest of the processions, and attracts tens of thousands of people from all over South India. These chariots are pulled by people, devotees. To even move one of these ‘cars’ takes many hundreds (or thousands, in the case of the big car carrying Annamalai and Unnamalai) of people.

This ‘procession’ goes on all day, with the chariots spaced two hours (or more) apart. I put quote marks around procession, since these come one at a time, not in a  line, which is what I would expect from a procession.

Our driver, Rajan, found a house for us to use, where we could be on a balcony overlooking the show. Given our experience last year, this was most important for us. We would not again immerse ourselves in the worst of the crowd. Too many people. We felt very much that it is neither safe nor pleasant.

There are also people walking the procession route during this time. Hundreds walking pradakshina (’rounding’, so called by the local Indian people) of the big temple.  There are also many street vendors and an atmosphere that is carnival-like.


Getting started

Our morning started about 7:30 AM. We drove our scooter to Rajan’s rickshaw stand. At the rickshaw stand was a man with a cobra in a basket.


Altogether there were six of us, along with Jim’s camera gear. We boarded two rickshaws and drove near the area of the procession. When we got near, the road was blocked, so we had to get out and walk the rest of the way.

Along the way we saw the first of many children being carried in saree slings suspended from bunches of sugar canes by family groups. Sometimes all woman, sometimes men, but usually men and women together, with their older children tagging along, shouldering the cane poles. People will pray at the big temple for a sick child. On this day they are thanking Annamalai for helping to heal the child by walking pradakshina around the big temple.


We got to our viewing place about 8 AM.  Here is the house. It is the one that is the tallest, three stories. We were on the third floor. The entrance to the big temple is to the east of us. We face north, away from the sun. The procession will start on Car Street in front of the big temple, go down that street and then turn the corner and come up our street.


The first chariot was not to start until after 9 AM. So we went to Rajan’s favorite eating place, which was near here, across the street from the west gate of the big temple. From the looks of this place, without Rajan taking us there, we would have never gone in. Now it is one place to eat that we like a lot.


We got there as they opened. Naturally, before food was served there was a puja. Much smoke comes from a charcoal  brazier, making smoke to offer to the gods. He is ringing a bell, too.


After a great breakfast (which cost about Rs 25, or 50 cents, US), we walked back to our viewing site.

Along the way we met the first element of the day’s procession, the temple elephant.


We gave the elephant a rupee coin, so he blessed Carol by tapping her on the head.


Nice elephant.


Ganesh in a small chariot

We waited for a few minutes, then a bit before 9 AM the first chariot appeared. This is Ganesh, in one of the ‘small’ chariots. Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, will always start a procession here. And I think in any Siva temple.


There was a good crowd around and walking with Ganesh.


In front were boys with linked hands, making way for the chariot and those pulling it up the gradual slope of this road.


On one side was a line of women, pulling. It is considered a great honor to be one of those who can pull the chariot. They are pulling on a big chain, with the links about one foot long. The chain is very heavy, in itself. Just add thousands of pounds of chariot and it is a big load to pull.


Men pull the chain on the other side.


Here it comes.


Ganesh is inside the top chamber, hard to actually see.



Behind is a smaller crowd, and the chase vehicles. One is a medical van.


To the back are a group of young men, who place big levers behind the rear wheels, and then jump on them to get the chariot moving. The inertia is so great that even with many hundreds of people pulling they cannot budge it without the help of these start levers. The levers get it moving the first few inches, then the pullers provide the force. 


The chariot rounds the corner. This is not a small job, since the wheels do not steer. Brake levers in front slow the wheels on one side or the other to direct movement around corners.


Waiting for Murugan

We had to wait about two hours, until 11 AM, for Murugan’s chariot.

The big temple, Arunachaleswara Temple, dominates the horizon.


Jim rests during the wait. He was up late shooting the silver chariots at midnight the previous night.  As the day progresses we all take turns resting.


We hear drums. We look and a big group is coming up the street, about one hundred people?


In front are drummers and reed players making music.


Following are many people carrying their kids in bundles hanging from cane sugar poles.


Next door they have erected a cloth roof to make a pandal. Many people are here watching (as they are on all the neighboring rooftops).


A boy looks out from his sling. Mom (amma in Tamil) has  the front.


In front of the house next to the one we are in there is a group making cotton candy. The sugar spinning machine is cranked by hand, by the man in the pink shirt.  They have different colored dyes to add to the sugar, yellow as well as pink.


Many people with children sit on steps waiting for the chariots. Families and friends get together to spend the day with each other. 


Below us is a pineapple cart. You can get slices of fresh pineapple for Rs 3 each (about 7 cents, US), with or without a squirt of hot sauce.


We walked to a nearby tea stall for coffee and tea.


The chai walla was very busy today. He is happy to have his photo taken.


Murugan, the second chariot

After the wait we see another chariot turning the corner and coming up the street.


Jim and Robin are in the street shooting some video. Robin is shooting, Jim directing.


A good crowd accompanies the Murugan chariot, smaller though that with Ganesh.



People watch from the neighboring pandal.


The top of the chariot is covered with cloth. Two symbolic horses are in front to ‘pull’ the chariot. (They need help from hundreds of people, though.)


The chariot driver waves a white pom-pom to tell the pullers to pull.


You can just barely see Murugan inside.


The cloth covering of the top is quite elaborate. A funny little umbrella sits on top.


The two lines of people pull to move the chariot up the street.


You can see the effort on the faces of these women.

woman pulling

“Go!” says the driver.


Murugan peeps out the chamber.


The cloths covering the top shows traditional Hindu pictures.


The chariot looks top heavy. Carol wonders if they ever fall over. So do I.


The lever is being placed behind the rear wheels.


The guys climb it and start jumping up and down until either they fall off, or the chariot starts to move.

It is moving, with Arunachala in the background. 


You can see the line of pullers in front of the chariot as it turns the corner.


One more chariot gets around the corner. There is a good crowd waiting here to see it pass.


Up on the lever again, jump, jump. Some fall off backward.


Long wait for the big chariot

It took a very long time for the big chariot with Annamalai and Unnamalai to come. One issue is that on Saturdays, the day of this procession, from 1 to 3 PM are not auspicious times, so naturally, the chariot cannot start then. So we have to wait. And wait.

We return to the nearby restaurant to eat. Rajan’s daughter, Jananni, is dressed up in my hat, sitting next to Lauren and wearing her sunglasses.20091128_2502

Vendors line the streets.


Jim takes snaps of people along the way.


Peanuts, get your peanuts. Here they are called ‘ground nuts.’


Women sit on steps. A vendor’s cart with plastic things for kids is nearby.


These are some kind of legume that have been boiled in salted water. Peel and eat.


Free food is given out. These women sit and eat. Empty plates are just thrown into the street.


Whirlygigs are sold by vendors walking by.


Carol snaps this boy.


The nearby vendor sells stamps with fancy designs. The boy has his hand stamped.


Here is a kid in a bunny mask. Why? No idea.


Rajan bought a balloon for his son, Raam.


How many on this bike? The most we saw today was six.


A puffed  rice vendor. It is flavored, and chopped veggies and condiments are mixed in per your order.


The big Chariot comes

Finally at about 5 PM we see the umbrella of the big chariot in the distance, through the buildings.

It seems to take half and hour or more to make it the next 100 feet. The crowd is growing. This is the big event.


Across the street, a woman lays out a new fresh kolam before the big chariot passes her house. She wants everything to be nice for Annamalai and Unnamalai.

Now the chariot has gotten to the corner by the vegetable market. We can see  it for the first time.

There it is, with an enormous crowd in front of it. Many are the pullers. This chariot is much bigger, so many more pullers (and longer levers in back and more jumpers) are needed.


The lights have been turned on at the big temple. Nice.


It is getting dark. Lights have been turned on now inside the big chariot. Power is provided by a generator pulled by a following auto. There is a power cord between them. Can’t let it get unplugged along the way.


It is getting dark now, past 6 PM and it is still not to us. Getting close though.


Fireworks are set off by someone. We see several nice bursts.


It is coming. Look at all the people!



Many people are around it, and in front. Many are pulling the chains. Many walk along with it. When they pull, the pullers chant. Thousands of voices make for loud chanting.


Annamalai and Unnamalai can faintly be seen in the top chamber.



This is a close-up of the front of the chariot showing the brake levers that are pulled by the men to steer.


The front of the chariot is decorated so nicely.



The wheels are about twice the height of a person. Get under one and you will be crushed.


Long levers are used to start it moving. The people on the levers are from one specific community. They are the only ones allowed to do this function. During Deepam they stay at the big temple and are fed there.


Rounding the corner. This takes a very long time for this chariot.


Jim took this shot with a special exposure to show the top. The top is dark in the other night time photos.

big chariot

After the chariot passed, we walked out to where we would get on a rickshaw. Rajan got us all back OK, along with all Jim’s equipment. We were all exhausted. We stopped by Usha’s restaurant for a quick dinner, then drove the scooter home. We were gone more than twelve hours and are exhausted. 

What an amazing day!

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One Response to “Deepam 2009 – Day of the Big Chariots”

  1. Anu Says:

    Absolutely beautiful!! thanks a lot for sharing… you are indeed lucky to have attended this festival……..


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